The Harships of Immigration
What are we living for, if not to make life less difficult for each other? You can call it a tribe, a cluster, friends, a family; whatever that may be, whoever you are, everyone needs one. Indeed, the struggles in life are hard; however, adjusting to a new life in an unknown land is even harder. In the early 1900s, immigration was at an all time high as many foreigners left their native land because of poverty and discrimination in hopes of improving their economic and social standing. Despite their optimism, immigrants had many shortcomings as they had neither food, nor money, nor shelter. This not only made assimilating into American culture extremely difficult, but also hindered the ability for many families to support themselves.
As shown in Mario Puzo’s critically acclaimed novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, the Angeluzzi-Corbo family, led by the matriarch, Lucia Santa, has to endure a fearless journey of obstacles and misfortunes in their efforts to survive and achieve the American Dream. Set during the early 20th century, America becomes a haven for immigrants as many arrived at Ellis Island. With a common dream in mind, the new immigrants desire to be successful and able to provide for their family as a citizen of the United States. Trekking from the small farms of Italy to the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in America, Lucia Santa marries for all the wrong reasons when she sees a marriage to a childhood friend as an escape from the confinements of Italy to the vast streets of America. Additionally to her father’s discontent with her decision, the transition is not made any easier as the burdens of money, racism, and unfamiliarity abrupt Lucia Santa and her family’s lives. Faced with the adversity of immigration and utmost hardship, a constant unwillingness to give up despite all odds eventually leads this family to the fruit of their labors.
When Lucia Santa’s first husband dies, she remarries to a man named Frank Corbo. Bearing him three kids, Gino, Sal, and Lena, she marries Frank because she cannot support her kids Larry, Octavia, and Vincenzo as a widow. In the 1900s, most men came first to America, working at unskilled jobs such as building railroads and skyscrapers in order to send money back home. Wives who followed their husband usually stayed at home caring for the children or worked at small garment trades and textile mills. Rarely was the case that a woman could support a family by her own two hands. Despite the fact that Frank has a steady job working on the railroad, the family is only able to occupy a small tenement on 10th avenue.
With 3 small rooms intact, a large family of 8 occupies the tenement. Although the tenement may seem cramped for standard living to most people today, the Angeluzzi-Corbo’s actually lived in a rather comfy tenement in comparison to other new immigrants. Tenements were dark and cramped, with one room occupied by at least 2 or more families. Not only were living conditions uncomfortable, toilets were shared amongst everyone. Typically, people would wait in long lines for the bathroom, which normally led to peeing on the floor. Garbage was also barely collected.
This lead to unsanitary conditions as cleaning was constantly required for the tenements. Compared to the marble brownstones of the upper classes, immigrants settled for dreary cheap houses in order to make ends meet. In the 1920s, America experienced a “boom” as consumer demand for products increased. By the mid 1920s, the ability of people to spend began to weaken. Over-speculation and on-margin buying led to the illusionment of a thriving economy when in reality, prices were actually dropping.
Most banks went bankrupt as they loaned heavily for stock purchases which stock-buying borrowers eventually defaulted on. The Great Depression affected the masses, trickling all the way down to the lower class. Gino’s friend Joey follows his father’s advice and puts two hundred and thirteen dollars in the bank, quite a wealth in the past. As the bank went bankrupt, so did he. Joey’s dad loses an even bigger fortune as he lost five thousand dollars; earned through twenty years of work in the bitter cold and terrible heat of America.
He is shattered by the incident. When Gino comes home, he learns that the panettiere lost ten thousand dollars in the stock market. He and Larry are both relieved that their mother is poor. Little do they know, when Lucia Santa’s first husband had died, the court awarded her with three thousand dollars for herself and a thousand dollars to each child, which was put into a trust. Afraid and timid of the shiny building, she was apprehensive about going into the bank as a new immigrant; she felt she had no right to do so.
Instead, she secretly saved the money in postal savings. Money was a constant issue that faced immigrants, as labor from each family member was needed to ensure their survival. Immigrant children often left school early without graduating to help earn money for the family. Rather than spending his summer playing and fooling around with his friends, Vincenzo was forced to work at the panettiere for five dollars a week. He did hard labor from carrying heavy flour sacks to hulling large boxes. When Larry gets married, Lucia Santa is worried, as Larry’s money would no longer go to her, but to his own family.
As a result, Octavia works longer hours for less pay in order to come up with his portion. She sacrifices her dreams of becoming a schoolteacher and settles instead for garment making. Immigrants believed the pavements of America to be paved in gold when in reality; it was nothing but a dirty sidewalk. If immigration was the savage animal in the dark, cheap labor was the hand that fed it. Success was not picture perfect as immigrants were given bottom of the crop jobs, jobs that nobody else had wanted.
These jobs were usually dangerous and unsafe. Many accidents occurred during the jobs due to treacherous working conditions. Otherwise, factory jobs were given to immigrants as a source of cheap labor. When Frank finds work at a chocolate cocoa factory, the demands of industry eventually makes him go crazy. The constant pressure of working in assembly lines, sacrificing individualism, and being a machine rather than a human takes a toll on him as he is eventually committed to a mental institution.
Without his paycheck, both Larry and Octavia are forced to contribute to the family. It is only when Octavia is also admitted to a hospital does Lucia Santa realized how serious it is when money is not rolling in. Octavia was the one who saved money, the one that everyone relied on. So much of their savings are taken out that Lucia Santa applies for welfare. Many immigrants had to sacrifice their hopes and goals; their priorities changed once they realized that life in America was not as easy as it sounded.
Though immigrants were treated unfairly, there were benefits such as a public hospital and community center. The community center was not only a place of leisure, but a place of education as well. The first summer that Vincenzo was working at the Panettiere, Octavia sees an application for the Tribune Fresh Air Fund, which sent children to summer camp for two weeks or to special country homes at the Hudson Guild Settlement House. She submits Vinnie’s name and despite his initial hesitation to leave his family, he comes home well dressed and happy, a far cry from his initial mindset working at the panettiere. In the end, despite the sudden death of Vincenzo, Lucia Santa is blessed with strong healthy children.
Not only are all of her children working and giving money to her, they have bright futures ahead of them. They finally achieve the American Dream and end up buying a big house in Long Island, one with rooms big enough for everyone. The Angeluzzi-Corbo’s blessings were the exception, as conditions for Italian immigrants did not change till the mid 1900s. Many suffered horrible hardships before being able to overcame the obstacles faced by an immigrant of the United States. The United States has long been known as the melting pot of the world.
In the 1900s, large numbers of immigrants came to Ellis Island in hopes for a better life. Coming from humble beginnings, these immigrants set out to work hard in hopes to reap the fruits of their labor. Seen in The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo, the journey of the Angeluzzi-Corbo’s exposes the reality of Italian immigrants in all its harshness, from the tight budgets to a huge wealth gap of what immigrants faced in the golden land. The sad part is, living in today’s world filled with conveniences, we tend to forget the struggles of the generations before